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Slow Music

Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire

Why do I love abstract and weird? Well… to be honest, why not? Sometimes it’s so important for the music we listen to or the things that we read to challenge us. If all we listen to is the sweet and obvious sounds then we miss a whole sound palette. Being open to adventures in sound can bring us new ideas, new thoughts and concepts.

I’ve been working on writing projects today and whilst in the zone I was listening to the Slow Music project. This was a really fascinating project developed by Bill Rieflin with the help of Robert Fripp, Peter Buck and others. The concert I was listening to also included the late great (please excuse the cliché) Hector Zazou. At times it was ambient, at times it was abstract, improvisational and always spacious.

I hadn’t heard it for a long time. It’s even more beautiful than I remember. The concert took place 11 years ago in Los Angeles.

Sometimes we can find beauty in the gentle and slowly evolving. It’s a fast paced world. We need time in the 7 minute morning mediation, or in the moments of pause whilst sitting on the train, or the hour spent listening to music like this. We are brought back to the present and reminded that there is no other time but now.

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McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Santa Monica

img_1729It just looked like a normal music shop selling an eclectic mix of musical instruments. It was across the road from the hotel on Pico Boulevard where we were staying for two nights on our road trip through California, Nevada and Arizona back in August of this year.

We hardly noticed it. Except for the second night of our stay as we came out of Santa Monica and walked past the shop at 8.30 pm. It was open and that seemed odd. June suggested that we should go in and take a look.

img_1727As we stepped inside through the heavy wooden doors with guitar fretboards as handles, it struck us that this wasn’t an ordinary music shop. There were loads of people buzzing around inside. A member of staff – a tall guy – welcomed us into the store and asked us if we knew where we were and also where we were from. It turns out that this is the guy who organises the concert programme for the shop. He is really excited to show us around and tell us about the shop. At the back of the shop is a concert hall with instruments hanging all over the walls. There’s a gig that evening which is why itimg_1726 is still open and so busy. We are invited to have a look around and listen to some of the concert. We wait to hear one song by Dave Alvin and a beautiful song it is too. Our host then takes us upstairs to show us the corridor with framed photos of those who have appeared here. I see so many familiar faces and am awe-struck that this unassuming looking place has hosted all of these artists.

It’s a long list – the shop has been going since 1958. Here is a complete list. It’s an incredible list for its depth and breadth. Some huge names and such a diverse mix of musical genres.

The infectious excitement of the staff working in the shop leaves us feeling giddy. We head back to the hotel room and I sit in bed wading through the performers list on my iPad emitting a “wow” every few seconds. What an incredible place!

The following morning there is just enough time for us to call in again so that I can buy a T-shirt with the McCabe’s logo on it. What an incredible find!

(November Challenge 9/31)

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Improvisation in the Moment

This post was written before the results of the Presidential Election in the USA:

I am sitting at the dining room table. It’s late afternoon. Thanks to the shifting seasons it is already becoming dark. Within a short while we will know the outcome of the Presidential election and whether the planet is safe for now.

jarrettIn the background is “Creation” by Keith Jarrett, a beautiful album of short piano improvisations. I love listening to his music. It inspires me. I may have mentioned before, that the striking thing about Keith Jarrett’s concerts of improvised music is the fact that he meditates and stills himself before performance and then walks onto stage with a mind of emptiness to create in the moment. There are no pre-arranged ideas, no threads and patterns to work from. He just begins to play and waits to see what emerges. In digging through the notes and phrases one can often hear him finding something he likes, developing and expanding on it. In the background if you listen carefully you can hear him reacting to some of the moments of ecstasy that emerge from the playing. It’s astonishing to listen to.

IMG_1329That process of creation and improvisation in the moment is amazing to listen to. I heard a similar process in Bristol back in May when I attended the Social Age Safari and watched the performance poet Selby creating poetry live and in the moment.

We also see this in the art of improvisation shown by comedians at work. Again, it is remarkable to watch. Billy Connolly at his peak also had a similar openness to creating in the moment when on stage.

These techniques can take our creative pursuits into exciting new areas. It’s a question of looking at what we do and then opening it up to the new – how might this work as a process in real time, something that is created and adapted as we go. Anything can be tried  – break down the preconceived rules and just explore. Take the thought process where it wants to go. And above all, Trust! Trust the process, trust ourselves, and trust the outcome.

(November challenge: 7/31)

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Rough music cuts – a 30 day exercise


… a note taken from Evernote, which I produced recently. This is one of a series of ideas for developing new material over a 30 day period. This is the note without edit:

Take 15 minutes each day, make it a repeating task in Remember the Milk for those 30 days (weekdays only? so will take 6 weeks to complete) In the 15 minutes I open Garageband and work with sounds, develop some sound files. The aim would be to develop a minimum of 10 sound pieces in the time available. Work swiftly, honour mistakes – perhaps look for inspiration from Oblique Strategies. When possible, ensure the music is hugely experimental. Look at the software that Mark Rushton uses. Record voice – spoken and singing. Over the 7 1/2 hours devoted to this I should be able to build up some interesting ideas – and above all else, develop some confidence in working with sound.

This was the process which I used to create the ‘Blue‘ album. I am about to embark on it again for the “Difficult Second Album”. Wish me luck!
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Update: apparently you are never too old to release your first album

On Friday I publicised the release of an album through Bandcamp. It comprised 15 tracks, using spoken word and music. The words come from “Blue: experiments in sound” which is the fourth poetry sequence about a misanthropic, lone-wolf character called Blue. I will be releasing this as a book in the next few months. In the meantime, last week saw the album in digital form.

I was really surprised by the reaction through social media over the weekend. There was plenty of attention, 115 listens on Bandcamp already – which is probably 100 more than I thought there would be, and some really lovely emails from people who enjoyed what they heard.

So, it’s probably never too late to try something out!

The challenge isn’t learning how to do things, or coming up with ideas, it’s overcoming that inner critic that chunners away in the background telling us that what we have done isn’t worth sharing! That’s why it has taken me since last summer to press the publish button and get this material up online.

Was it worth it? Yes, the objective has been met – something shared with the world (or a little piece of the world), and sharing things creates the space to move on to the next project.

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Am I too old to release my first album?

IMG_0531A really short blog post today just to answer the question.

I hope I am not too old, as Wednesday was the day when I released my first full length album through bandcamp. It’s a part of the Blue project which I have written about here before. If you are interested to learn more, you can read this.

The album can be found here.

And coming soon will be the physical version – in other words, a CD (remember them).

It’s never too late to realise a dream. And now I have done that – it’s time to start work on the difficult second album….

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The Unthanks – Liverpool Philharmonic Halls – 1st March 2015

If I said to you that a performance comprising a string quartet plus a folk band with two sisters singing and clog dancing brought the audience to its feet with a massive cheer at the end of a ten minute song just before the interval – you might not believe me. Read on.

It’s always a bit of a tense moment sitting in an audience with family members, watching as the band come onstage to start playing music that you have loved and are hoping is going to be as good as you have made it out to be. I wasn’t going to be disappointed, and neither were my son and partner!

I first heard The Unthanks on Radio Three’s Late Junction a good few years ago – those voices – Becky and Rachel Unthank, come from a strong Northumbrian folk heritage, and their voices are at once stunning and distinctive, and perfectly matched when they harmonise.

I raced out to get an album by them. And after a good listen, I even played them to my music listening friend, John, who is usually pretty focused on blues and hard rock. Even he was entranced by the delicate beauty of their harmonies and eeriness of the Geordie dialect. The idea of seeing them not just singing, but clog dancing too was just too weird to miss.

Having got hold of the new album (Mount the Air) the day it came out and been playing it since then – I already had the melodies stuck in my head. This was really exciting – I couldn’t wait to hear them live. I had missed them in Liverpool when they came to play with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band – so didn’t want to miss them again.

Here I was then, sitting and waiting – listening to the innocence of the support act, Raevennan Husbandes, playing an acoustic guitar and singing like a cross between Janis Ian and Eva Cassidy. Then, onto the stage come The Unthanks.

Ten of them  – that’s two voices (with clogs for rhythms!), piano, drums, bass (double and electric), trumpet and a string quartet. That’s a clue to where their music has travelled – it is now a mix of folk, jazz and classical. They seem to have found their own space in this blend of genres. I love the way they are mixing traditional songs (well researched) with the new, and also twisting prog rock and avant rock into folk / jazz interpretations all their own.

It was an amazing concert. Thoroughly enjoyed by the audience. Full of peak moments. Above all, I loved the way the group managed to achieve an informality on the stage in spite of the size of the venue. They chatted and bantered their way between songs and gave the impression that we were sitting in their lounge watching them do what they love best. It was impressive.

Now, a band that has released albums with cover version of songs by Robert Wyatt, Antony and the Johnsons, and King Crimson are clearly going to appeal to me. It’s almost as though they are working through my music collection. All of these tastes were reflected in the  songs they chose to sing – and each song comes with the distinctive Unthanks watermark on it. Their sound is just so clearly their own – to tag them as folk is too limiting.

Late in the performance they hinted that they will be doing something more substantial in Liverpool next year. I can’t wait to find out more. In the meantime, if you get the chance to see them whilst they are on tour don’t miss it. If you don’t – try an album. You won’t be disappointed.

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Working with what you have

I never really thought about this until this last weekend when I was lucky enough to get the latest album by Eberhard Weber. It’s the second album which he has produced solo since he had a stroke a few years ago. Before that he had a long career as a jazz musician playing double bass both solo, and in bands such as his own called Colours and the Jan Garbarek Band. He also worked with the likes of Kate Bush. His sound is spectacularly distinctive!

When I heard in 2007 that he had suffered a stroke I was really sad to hear that it was unlikely that he would play the double bass again. Having seen him three times live over the years performing with Jan Garbarek, it was awful to think that we would never be able to see that experience live again. Whenever he performed with Garbarek he was always given a slot in the middle of the concert for a solo performance. Typically, this would last for about 10 minutes and he would use echo pedals to build up layers of improvised sound until he had created a new musical piece. Not only was it inspiring to watch, the sound he produced was astonishing and immensely beautiful.

So, I come to the title of this piece. Back in 2012, Eberhart Weber released an album of new material. It was developed from concert recordings over the years which were made of those solo performances. On that first album, “Resumé”,  he took those recordings and blended in some new contributions from Jan Garbarek. For this new album, “Encore”, he has worked on another 13 pieces and added the flugelhorn of Ack Van Rooyen. Weber also adds keyboards and piano. For him now, the recording studio has become the instrument for him to work with.

Of course, fans like me will be so happy to see new material by him. It shows how with a positive attitude, we can find ways to work with what we have. There is always a way through. The album is stunning and merits listening through headphones to capture the subtlety of the pieces that he has produced.

And here’s as an interesting postscript that links to the last post on this blog, where I was writing about the work of Robert Wyatt. it’s perhaps interesting to note that Wyatt also had to rethink how he made music after falling from a window and ending up in a wheelchair unable to play drums.

So, a theme developing – one about how we look to make what we can with what we have. Sometimes the restrictions that life places upon us, are the very thing that pushes us to be more creative.

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Making music

20130812-195311.jpgOver the past few months I have been experimenting with music and sounds to see if I can make backing tracks over which I can then record a poem. The poems I am using are from a sequence I am still writing about a character called Blue. I have been writing about this character for a few decades now. For some reason, I keep being drawn back to him. This will be the fourth sequence of poems.

As I have been making music (mainly with the GarageBand app) I have found it much more enjoyable than I thought it would be. So far I have produced 11 tracks – they all need work on them, especially to improve the voice recording. But I am really pleased with the way the project is developing.

Last week I spent some time learning how Bandcamp works, and set up an account there. If you want to listen to a couple of the rough edits of the tracks from the project you can take a listen for free. Follow this link – just two tracks there at the moment. But once it is ready, I will put the whole album up. It’s never too late to start a musical career! Especially if you begin with no expectations.

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What’s he listening to in there?

It’s been a while since I posted a quick summary of the music I am listening to. If you have been reading my blog for a few years (yes, you at the back with your eyes closed!) you will know that I am mad about music and have pretty diverse tastes.

So, for what it’s worth here is a list of the music that I am really enjoying at the moment with a quick explanation. I am not attempting reviews – just a quick context:

1. Ketil Bjornstad – Songs from the Alder Thicket.

I have loved the music of Ketil Bjornstad for a long time. I first came across his music in a collaboration he did with Terje Rydal. His piano music touches something in my soul. A few years ago I read a novel by him called “To Music”. It was brilliant – very few novels move me to tears. This one did. So, when I saw that there was an album based on the novel (and its sequels) I was keen to hear it. Unfortunately the sequels are not available in English (wonder when they will be) but this double album is stunning. It comprises a set of piano improvisations on the first disc – Bjornstad’s music is beautifully melodic and lyrical – and a set of classical pieces mentioned in the novel for the second disc.

2. James Blake – Overgrown

Stunning minimal music on this second album. I love the space in between the notes and the plaintif sound of Blake’s voice. I also love the EP called “Enough Thunder” by Blake which has a stunning cover of “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell.

3. Neil Young – Harvest Moon

Yes, I know it’s been around for ages. I used to have it on cassette tape. Then, a few weeks ago June and I went to a coffee shop in Chester, UK which was named after the album. I couldn’t stop singing the title song for the rest of the day and I ended up buying the album again. The video of the title track is great. His latest album “Psychedelic Pill” is amazing too – extended guitar jams and great riffs!

4. Naughty Boy – Hotel Cabana

Heard the single “La La La” on the radio a lot. Then, when I saw the video which is an amazing piece of work, I was really keen to get the album. It only came out a week ago – it’s fabulous. If you like Emeli Sande you will be pleased because she sings on several tracks.

5. Richard Skelton – Ivystrung

I’ve been following the musical output of Richard Skelton for a couple of years now. He makes serene minimal music where the various string instruments he plays are treated, looped and remixed to generate prolonged resonating pieces which are fantastic to work to. I’ve also just bought “Echoless” by *AR which is an album of music made with his partner Autumn Richardson.